by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Ron Fournier‘s latest column at National Journal contends “the modern GOP is an obstructionist, rudderless party often held hostage by extremists.” That doesn’t stop Fournier from questioning the 44th president’s leadership skills.
Two New York Times reporters recently posited for President Obama this grim scenario: Low growth, high unemployment, and growing income inequality become “the new normal” in the nation he leads. “Do you worry,” the journalists asked him, “that that could end up being your legacy simply because of the obstruction … and the gridlock that doesn’t seem to end?”
Obama’s reply was telling. “I think if I’m arguing for entirely different policies and Congress ends up pursuing policies that I think don’t make sense and we get a bad result,” he said, “it’s hard to argue that’d be my legacy.”
Actually, it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be his legacy. History judges U.S. presidents based upon what they did and did not accomplish. The obstinacy of their rivals and the severity of their circumstances is little mitigation. Great presidents overcome great hurdles.
Later, Fournier takes aim at some of the chief excuses put forward by President Obama’s apologists.
1. Voter disillusionment is not caused by pundits who (quoting Klein again) “falsely promise that the glowing briefcase of president leadership can fix what ails us.” The greatest guilt lies with presidential candidates who overpromise. Obama explicitly vowed to change the culture of Washington. For two consecutive elections, he toted his glowing briefcase and waved his green lantern to give voters the audacity to hope. He knew the limits of his powers when he ran for the job. When his broken promises feed disillusionment, the president can’t shirk responsibility.
2. The extreme sorting-out of the two parties in Congress is nothing new. It was mostly complete after the 1994 midterms, and posed challenges for both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Despite polarization, Obama’s two predecessors managed to find common ground with their obstinate opposing parties. Yes, politics is hard today—but no harder than, say, during the Civil War era or the turbulent 1960s.
3. The outsize attention given to the president gives him unparalleled advantages. Obama can make better use of it. He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find “win-win” opportunities with Republicans. He could make better use of his Cabinet to message and enact policies. In private, he could talk less and listen more. In public, he could set reasonable expectations and meet them. He could pick his fights better. In hindsight, Obama should have gotten much more out of Congress when Democrats controlled both chambers. …
… To say the situation is intractable seems akin to waving a white flag over a polarized capital: Republicans suck. We can’t deal with them. Let’s quit.